Young and Hungry

Bottled Up: Sonoma, D.C.’s Pioneering Wine Bar, Has Uneven Legs

Sonoma, D.C.'s Pioneering Wine Bar, Has Uneven Legs

“Try the barbera,” the bartender huffs, not-so-delicate-ly setting the stemmed glass on the counter in front of me with a clang.

This was perhaps the most brief, and definitely the most brusque, conversation about wine that I’d ever had in a supposed wine bar.

I had merely asked for a recommendation of a nice big red to pair with my steak, a nicely charred wood-grilled ribeye that came pink in the center but not nearly as bloody as I generally like, drizzled with blueberry compote, the chef’s special of the evening.

Maybe I’ve been spoiled in my extensive visits to various vino-themed venues across the country—full disclosure: my wife is a former travel editor at Wine Spectator—but I’ve come to expect certain things from a place billing itself as a wine bar. One of them is the verbose bartender, that eloquently loquacious and shrewd salesperson who can make even the cheapest corked swill sound like the nectar of the gods. “This Chilean cab is a big, bold blockbuster with notes of pencil lead and leather,” he’ll say. Or, “the Portuguese alvarinho is quite peachy and would pair perfectly with your pork sliders.”

I’ll get my fill of gruffness at the nearest dive bar, thank you very much.

My subsequent quip about how the jammy-flavored and ruby-colored Predator old vine zinfandel might indicate a new pursuit for disgraced former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who once starred in a film of the same name, barely registered. At least I thought it was a good joke.

When the guy behind the bar of one of D.C.’s premier wine-centric restaurants can’t muster much enthusiasm about an expansive selection that ranges from malbec to grüner veltliner, you begin to wonder whether anyone is passionate about wine, anymore.

Perhaps he was having a bad day. But a different bartender on a different night seemed just as distant, half-heartily endorsing a prosecco, pouring it, and then disappearing without further discussion.

Sonoma Restaurant and Wine Bar, which marks its sixth anniversary this month, was among the District’s earliest adopters of the wine-bar model. Offering cheese as an entrée and some 40 varietals on tap behind a temperature-controlled case seemed quite advanced back then. It was an opportune time: the District was rapidly becoming the oenophile capital of America, boasting more bottles quaffed per legal-aged drinker than any bona fide state in the nation, outpacing even California, where much of the domestic product comes from, according to one study.

Lately, D.C.’s collective thirst for the grape has been supplanted by an explosion of interest in craft beer and crafty cocktails. Your server today is just as likely to recommend an IPA pairing with your duck breast entrée as an old-fashioned burgundy.

Even the fiercely vine-inclined have had to adapt. Note the various micro-brews now on tap at Sonoma, such as the Flying Dog Raging Bitch. How refined!

In many ways, however, Sonoma is still putting out the same wine and cheese spread it did a half-decade ago. For instance, the creamy Pipe Dreams chèvre from Pennsylvania remains a staple, appearing both on cheese plates and as part of the house spinach salad with beets and walnuts. In fact, the restaurant recently focused an entire meal around the fluffy stuff, in honor of the visiting producer. And, while local sourcing has always been central to Sonoma’s institutional food ethos, the same cannot be said for the wine list, which clings to Californian and Italian varietals. Not a single Virginia wine is available.

If the proprietors haven’t taken the time to tour the commonwealth’s maturing vineyard scene, perhaps that’s because they’ve been busy with more pressing matters.

Sonoma, D.C.'s Pioneering Wine Bar, Has Uneven Legs

This past March, court records show, owners Jared Rager and Eli Hengst settled a lawsuit with noted D.C. wine broker Tannic Tongue over tens of thousands of dollars in disputed fees for wines at Sonoma and its sister wine-centric restaurant, Mendocino in Georgetown.

A month earlier, Mendocino had been shuttered over unpaid taxes. Rager and Hengst had previously sold the Georgetown business to a former employee but they continued to guarantee the lease. Their forced reacquisition of that location has apparently had ripple effects on other holdings, primarily the former Blue Ridge restaurant in Glover Park, where renovations have stalled in light of the renewed financial burdens at Mendocino.

As Hengst told the Glover Park Gazette: “Most of the financial resources that we had set aside for the renovations at Blue Ridge have been consumed by our repossession of the [Mendocino] space from the prior owner.”

Blue Ridge, meanwhile, is its own debacle. After losing celebrated chef Barton Seaver last summer, the owners abruptly overhauled the concept—switching focus from fine wines to craft beers—before finally shutting down for further tweaks behind closed doors. It has yet to reopen. Rager says permits have been a big problem.

Compared to the other two D.C. properties, Sonoma would seem a smashing success for simply surviving in some recognizable form. So long as the dominoes don’t fall in its general direction, it looks likely to stay that way. Rager credits a “perfect storm” of location, price point, and culinary talent for its endurance.

Sonoma, D.C.'s Pioneering Wine Bar, Has Uneven Legs

Today, Sonoma’s hopes rest with executive chef Michael Bonk, the restaurant’s third commander of the kitchen, who follows Nick Sharpe and Sharpe’s predecessor, Drew Trautmann. Bonk’s reputation got a considerable boost this week from Maria Trabocchi, wife of Michelin-starred chef Fabio Trabocchi, who raved about the couple’s recent meal at Sonoma on her Twitter feed: “From the calamari, sardines, spaghetti, lamb and blueberry cheesecake.... Probably one of the best meals I have had in DC.” It was a ringing endorsement, albeit one tinged with a wee bit of cronyism. Bonk is an acolyte of Sharpe, who in turn toiled under Trabocchi at Maestro in Tysons Corner.

Like Sharpe, Bonk shows a particular penchant for pork. He livens up his pillowy homemade gnocchi, interspersed with mushy lima beans and sweet corn, with crispy chunks of bacon, adding both crunch and punch to an otherwise unremarkable dish. You’ll find the same crunchy pig bits scattered atop Bonk’s roasted Mennonite chicken. The juicy but salty bird comes with some tasty white string beans, but the bacon stands out above all.

One winning non-pork entrée is the roasted rainbow trout, served deboned and beheaded, its silvery skin intact. The flaky white fish arrived lightly seasoned and not too salty, served with a mound of potatoes seemingly culled from an ice-cream scoop.

Likewise, the grilled sardines and calamari in squid ink were satisfying smaller dishes. On the other hand, the “Eastern Market Salad,” consisting of mixed greens, haricot verts, and thinly sliced radishes, seemed pretty skimpy in terms of vegetal diversity, given the bountiful neighborhood bazaar that serves as its namesake. The meatballs and polenta appetizer, served sizzling hot in a shallow ceramic dish, proved hearty if a bit bland.

The most underwhelming, though, is the Margherita pizza, prepared seemingly in tune with D.C.’s prevailing artisanal pie obsession—but a far cry from the crisp, artfully constructed crusts at places like 2Amy’s and Pizzeria Paradiso. I found it too charred around the edges and too chewy at the center, garnished with some sad looking strips of basil.

Even pairing it with a fine Roth pinot noir failed to enhance the experience. Maybe it would taste better with a beer.

With reporting by Nick DeSantis

Photos by Darrow Montgomery

Sonoma, 223 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, (202) 544-8088

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  • RT

    They also own highly profitable Redwood in Bethesda. That place probably generated significant cash flow and has finally found its stride.

  • monkeyrotica

    That first picture looks like Jackson Pollock took on Cthulhu and lost.

  • nafnaf

    good article. without that location and dearth of similar price-point options in the area, Sonoma would be a goner

  • OrderedChaos

    I don't know anything about the apparently messy ownership situation, but my visits to Sonoma have consistently ranged from good to excellent. A few points:

    1. You complain that no Virginia wines are on the menu. Sure, adding one or two is a good idea, even if most are still well below the quality found elsewhere. Yet in the previous paragraph you say, "Note the various micro-brews now on tap at Sonoma, such as the Flying Dog Raging Bitch. How refined!" Perhaps you don't realize that Flying Dog is a Maryland brewery? That must be it, otherwise you'd have to be stupid to insult a local beer while slamming them for having no local wines.

    2. It's unfortunate that you don't start discussing food until 2/3 of the way through your article. The spaghetti mentioned (though not tasted by you) is absolutely fantastic. You were spot-on regarding how the chef handles pork, bacon, etc.

    I agree with your assessment of the pizza, but weren't you just complaining that adding beer was caving to popular sentiment? Why, then, do you want Sonoma to follow the popular pizza trend? And why compare Sonoma's offering to places that make all their, erm, dough, from pizza like 2 Amys? If a place focuses mainly on pizza, it had BETTER be top-notch. Clearly, Sonoma has higher priorities than jumping on the pizza bandwagon.

    It sounds like you had a bad experience with a server and that soured your whole outlook on the restaurant -- your food compliments are buried in the article, and seem begrudgingly given. The ownership mess and a restaurant review seem better suited to two separate articles.

  • styglan1

    RE: OrderedChaos

    Yes, but Flying Bitch is no longer a "microbrew" - it is everywhere, AFAIC.

  • JM

    Pretty funny and typical of CP... turning an article that should be about wine into an article about beer.

  • Bob McKay

    Next time could you write about a restaurant that you recommend that your readers visit? Or one that we should stay away from? Because writing about either of those would be a service to your readers. I don't even know what this was. The five paragraphs of your "investigative reporting" on the owners will not make the food better or worse on my next visit. Restaurant people are dreamers and risk takers. These guys have worked hard to bring very nice independently owned restaurants to Washington DC, supporting rising star chefs and most likely over a hundred employees. They are exactly the kind of people I like to support, all other things being equal. Newsflash - a bad employee! Newsflash - Chef turnover! Newsflash - a restaurant that struggles financially! Wow. The owners and employees did not deserve your snarkiness, and the review does not serve your readers.

  • Chris Shott

    Thanks to everyone who commented. I do read these remarks and greatly appreciate the feedback, even if I don't immediately respond.

    To the guy with the contradictory name "OrderedChaos," you're right about the pasta. I was so taken with the crunchy bacon gnocchi that I forgot to mention the pappardelle with pork bolognese, which similarly doesn't suck. Also, when I spoke to the owner, he suggested the chef himself wasn't thrilled with the pizza dough, either (a recipe he inherited), and is planning a pizza makeover at Sonoma in the near future. As for the "bad experience with a server...souring the whole outlook," well, the service at Sonoma has been an issue since Todd Kliman first reviewed the restaurant for Young & Hungry back in 2005. Here's the link:

    I do think that it's important for a place marketing itself as a wine bar to have helpful and knowledgeable staffers behind the counter so patrons have some guidance when trying to select from 40 some wines on tap. It's simply unacceptable to not provide that level of service--especially on a Saturday night, so I don't think I'm off-point in bringing that up.

    And to you, Bob, I apologize for any lack of clarity, as far as a definitive thumbs up, or thumbs down. I generally feel it's my job to cover the good and the bad and let readers decide for themselves whether to go or not. In this case, I'd say go for the food but skip the pizza and drink at your own risk--there is no lifeguard on duty at the pinot pool.

  • Mary Round

    I love Sonoma and have always had a good experience with the food and the staff there, and it saddens me to hear that the writer did not have the same experience. I usually sit at the bar and have found the bartenders to be knowledgeable and friendly. Many times I’ve asked for a recommendation and been pleased with the result. I enjoy the food and really appreciate how the menu changes regularly to promote new recipes and seasonal ingredients. The pappardelle with the pork bolognese is probably my favorite dish. In my opinion, it more than “doesn’t suck,” it’s almost like crack it’s so good. I guess I like pork just as much as the chef.
    As for the wine selection, it is my understanding (shared by one of the staff) that they focus their wine program on California and Italian wines, not local wines. My thinking is that given the vast number of wines produced in the world it makes sense to focus on a particular theme/region for a restaurant’s wine portfolio. The menu is Italian-inspired in a restaurant named for a California wine region, so go figure; the wine is primarily Italian and Californian varietals.
    What I can’t grasp is why the author needed to spend so much time discussing the financial state of Sonoma’s sister restaurants. I think the restaurant should be commended for continuing to maintain such a high level of quality despite the larger company’s financial concerns, instead of cutting corners in order to reduce costs. Focusing the attention of the review on some financial hiccups of another (though related) restaurant sounds a bit petty to me and unfairly casts a negative light on all the good things this restaurant is doing.

  • Jared Rager


    Thank you for the attention and feedback. No one ever said running an independent restaurant in DC was for the faint of heart. I believe we've got a great crew at Sonoma and we are proud of the food, service and knowledge level of our staff.

    We recognize we aren't perfect, but we do work hard everyday to make every guest happy. We'll look forward to your next visit, and we are confident you will continue to see improvement in our operation.

    We appreciate your insights into what we can do better, and we will take your constructive points to heart.

    -Jared (and the rest of the Sonoma crew)

  • R$L

    This confirms my experience in DC in general with lack of sophistication in the food service industry. I cannot shake the feeling, that most of the so-called upscale restaurants are run by individuals you do not travel to at least broaden their knowledge and develop their taste levels to appeal to broad range of customers from the newby to the knowledgable. DC purveyors and its customer base needs to experince the culinary wonders in SF, NY, London, Madrid, Barcelona, Tuscany, Argentina, Chile and Paris.